Dante. The Trinity should not be boring.

It’s true. Paradiso is not as interesting as the rest of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Compared to Inferno (and even Purgatorio), Paradiso is a slow, dreary slog. Like Milton’s Satan, Dante’s Inferno is yet another embarrassing example of the curious literary axiom that the wicked make better stories than the pious. For some reason, damnation will always be a hot seller. And yet, I couldn’t help but notice the sizable entrance of the Trinity into Paradiso. While it is almost nonexistent in Inferno and Purgatorio, the Trinity is a key “character” in Paradiso. I wonder how differently the three parts of the Divine Comedy would be if the Trinity was allowed a little more economic wiggle room across the three-tiered universe? The vision of the Trinity in Paradiso is so geometric. It is a celestial mobile with everything in its right place, a little too much like the forced symmetry of the Athanasian Creed for my taste. (I know, the creeds aren’t really cooked to taste. I will gulp down the Athanasian Creed, even though it burns a little. But it does seem like Dante poured too many Euclidian axioms into his pot.) I wonder if Paradiso would have a better reputation if we saw something in heaven of the mystery of the cross and the unpredictability of the Spirit?

Speaking of the Spirit, throughout the Divine Comedy the Holy Spirit is almost non-existent. The Spirit’s work is supplanted, replaced largely by the benevolent influence of the stars, the angels, and the saints. And the Holy Spirit is not the only person who is obscured. Throughout the entire work, Jesus Christ’s humanity is downplayed to the point of near invisibility. The Son fills out the Trinity, but the incarnation of that Son occupies a woefully small place in Dante’s cosmology. As a result (and following much late Medieval theology), Mary comes to completely occupy the place of human mediator. When Christ is rarified to a cosmic principle, someone else has to step in to fill the mediating void. Or, as Athanasius put it: “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” If Jesus didn’t really become human, he didn’t really save humanity.

This elimination of Christ’s human nature shows up in Dante’s religious epistemology, too. If the Word was not fully incarnated, then there is a curious gap between our natural and our supernatural knowledge. For Dante, Virgil comes before Beatrice; reason comes before revelation. Then, at the end of the poem, Bernard comes after Beatrice, so that contemplation comes last after revelation. There is a fairly strict order to knowledge: first reason, then revelation, then contemplation. To borrow Hans Boersma’s striking image, in the late scholastic period, the beautiful tapestry of heaven and earth, revelation and reason began to come apart at the seams. The universe was already rivening into Kant’s chasmic bifurcation. Reason happens first, then revelation, and never the two shall meet.

Here, Augustine and Anselm are a good corrective, with their definition of “faith seeking understanding.” Reason doesn’t precede revelation. Revelation precedes reason, and indeed continually sanctifies it. On this, contemporary theologian Sarah Coakley is especially helpful. For Coakley, contemplation is not the end of theology. It punctuates our theological work as the beginning, the middle, and the end. As such, it is an essential practice of theology. Contemplative prayer continually sanctifies our reasoning about the revelation that we have received. I wonder if Coakley’s non-hierarchical model of knowledge is a more integrated and faithful way of receiving the grace of God daily in our acts of knowing.

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At the very end of the Divine Comedy, at the highest heights of heaven, St. Bernard prays to the Virgin Mary that she would “keep [Dante’s] affections pure after so great a vision.” Dante does have room for life after contemplation, but that life is one of precarious purity, not one of emboldened action. Compare St. Bernard’s prayer for pristine preservation with the actions of Jesus coming down from the mountain of the Transfiguration. Where Dante tries to keep his elevated contemplative superiority over against his Florentine rivals, Jesus re-enters the active life with vigor, by healing, casting out demons, and hanging out with dirty sinners. And he does all this in the power of the Spirit, a power which, as I mentioned earlier, is ominously lacking in Dante’s work.

Yes, it is also true that the vision of the Trinity at the end of the poem is intensely moving and aesthetically powerful. And it is true that at the end of the poem, all of the saints are gathered around the throne, forming a recap of the history of salvation. But it’s not enough. Where is the economic Trinity? Where is the action of God, known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the world of embodiment and history?

I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s sly mashup of the Divine Comedy in Jayber Crow. Berry, ever the modern, refuses to grant Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory their borders, preferring instead to blend them up inside one man’s soul. What if, cautiously following Berry, we let the Trinitarian cat out of the celestial bag and let it play in the theater of the world a little more, even into the depths of our condition? As Sarah Coakley would put it, the Holy Spirit dismantles our vision of God and puts it back together, in a daily process of being joined to Christ and so growing closer and closer to God. This practice of contemplation does not simply withdraw us into interiority. It also thrusts us out anew into passionate engagement with the world. This is the way the Trinity truly crafts our lives, not in a geometric model of the universe, not just within the caverns of our souls, but within the drama of the Triune God.

‘soul-map’ readings of scripture

For years, I’ve wished for a better word than ‘psychological’ to describe a certain way of reading scripture. You know the reading I’m talking about. It’s not dogmatic, historical, social, or grammatical. (Yes, those are all great ways to read the Bible.) I’m talking about the way of reading where the text is mapped onto the contours of the soul. In this way of reading the text, the Bible tells us something about our deepest selves, so that we come to know ourselves better.
 
I don’t like the word ‘psychological,’ because it is so strongly linked to James, Freud, Jung, Pavlov, Erikson, Skinner, Rogers, etc. All of those thinkers were important, and we need to grapple with their systems. But when I think of a ‘psychological’ reading of scripture, I’d like to include views that predate Freud, listening to premodern monastic and contemplative voices. When I do a ‘psychological’ reading of a scripture text, I’m more interested in how Teresa of Avila or Evagrius Ponticus or Bernard of Clairvaux would read the passage than how Freud or Jung would read it.
 
Soul-mapping has been going on for a long time, long before it turned into a modern ‘science.’ I think that reading a scripture passage as a window into the soul is a rich and faithful way to read the Bible, especially when it is paired with Trinitarian theological readings.
 
So what’s a better word to use to describe this way of reading scripture? We could call it a ‘contemplative’ reading, but even that is not specific enough. A contemplative reading of a Bible passage could be a contemplation of our inner selves, but it could also be a contemplation of the divine life. In some way, these two tasks do interweave, but I’d like to be even more specific.
 
What if we called it the ‘interior’ reading? That’s still too fuzzy. What about the ‘soul-map’ reading?
 
I need help here. Anyone have a better name for what I’m after?

Pensées on the mechanics and magic of poetry

The study of poetry is a study of both the mechanics and the “magic” of words.

What do words do when they make meaning? We can map and analyze some of it (the mechanics), and some of it will remain a mystery (the “magic”).

To read a text well, you have to attend to both how the words work, and how the words refer to things beyond themselves.

The liminal space between a word and its meaning(s) is one key place where the “magic” happens.

The transformation of a word when it is severed from its original context and placed in an alien environment is a second key place where the “magic” of poetry happens.

To read the Bible well, you have to attend to both the mechanics and the “magic” of the words.

Therefore, studying poetry should make you a better reader of scripture. The skills learned in reading the former will spill over into your reading of the latter.

This is, of course, not all there is to reading the Bible. In mysterious cooperation with (and sometimes contradicting) our labor, the Holy Spirit acts in freedom and speaks to us through scripture.

It is a mistake to conflate the “magic” of words with the revelation of the Holy Spirit. This was Coleridge’s mistake in the Romantic period.

All the same, I still strongly suspect that there is something super-rational about words and the way that they mean meaning.

Calvin’s Sources of Authority

“Do you think my view lacks authority? It was Augustine who first opened the way for me to understand this commandment.” –– Calvin, Inst. II.VIII.50, 414.
What is interesting about this quote is that Calvin is explicitly using Augustine as a stated source of authority. Clearly sola scriptura was a more subtle concept during the Reformation than we are led to believe.

America’s Bible

It took me fifteen months, but I finally finished reading America’s God by Mark Noll. It’s not hyperbole when I say that it is without a doubt one of the most important books I have ever read, and should be required reading for anyone studying to be a pastor in America. The most important thing I learned from the book is this: The way that Americans read the Bible is not the way that any other Christians have read the Bible, ever. In fact, the way we read the Bible was invented less than 300 years ago. We like to say that “The Bible says what the Bible says,” but we should be more honest about the ways in which our American culture deeply influences the way we read the Bible. Americans like to think that they read the Bible without tradition getting in the way, but the uncomfortable truth is that our way of reading IS a tradition, the tradition of Francis Bacon, John Locke, and Thomas Reid. Wouldn’t it be better to be honest about our tradition and reform it? We needer a stronger understanding of the activity of God in the act of reading the Bible, the work of the Holy Spirit in an interpretive tradition, and the deep, forgotten links between sanctification and interpretation. In short, we need to return to a Trinitarian way of living inside scripture. Thanks, Mark Noll, for being an incredible historian and a gift to the church.

Review : Age of Anxiety by W. H. Auden

The Age of Anxiety is one of Auden’s greatest works, indeed probably one of the greatest poems of the Twentieth Century, but I do think the popular verdict is correct. It is a poem that is more fittingly respected than loved.

The poem is not sure what genre it is, which makes it both jungly diverse and plain cacophonous. I don’t know enough about poetic forms to catch all of the references, but it is at least simultaneously a medieval quest/dream poem, an oblique account of World War II, a landscape poem, a mystical treatise, and a philosophical and psychological thought experiment, with hints of a murder mystery. I think it is safe to say that the poem does not succeed in accomplishing all of its tasks, but it cannot be faulted for leaving such a monstrous to-do list incomplete.

Almost the entire poem (and it is long!) is written in Medieval alliterative verse, but in thoroughly modern English. The result is a dissonant clash of registers. It’s one of Auden’s signature blends, the twin obscurantism of arcane sites of Western civilization and dated slang. I felt like I was reading a bizarre chimera of Piers Plowman and Casablanca. I must confess that I love alliterative verse, but I recognize that the whole technical enterprise was a bit… nerdy.

Theologically, the poem is an attempt to follow Kierkegaard down into the depths of our sin, cultivating the ancient spiritual practice of admitting just how screwed up we really are. The poem is about 80% law and 20% gospel, but even that 20% of gospel is shown to be half-meant and play-acted. The result is a brutal assessment of Western culture’s sickness in the middle of the twentieth century. And the diseases Auden diagnoses – consumerism, technology worship, information overload, propaganda as advertising, pervasive loneliness – have only intensified. It’s not a happy poem.

But, perhaps undercutting the poem’s bleakness is the poetry itself, which contains many bright miniature worlds dreamily interwoven into the poem’s plot. (Although, to say that the poem even has a plot is a bit of an overstatement.)

After finishing The Age of Anxiety, I don’t think I will return to it as often or with as much relish as I will some of Auden’s other poems. Still, for anyone seriously interested in Auden or culture care, it is essential reading.

PS The introduction is by Alan Jacobs, and, as with pretty much everything else the man writes, it is amazing and worth reading on its own.

Book Review: Karl Barth’s The Faith of the Church

Karl Barth, The Faith of the Church: A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed

This is a fantastic book. It is basically Barth’s running commentary on Calvin’s running commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, which is itself a sort of commentary on the New Testament. It’s not often that I read a book with this many rich layers of conversation embedded in it.

Calvin’s commentary on the Creed is already gold, even without Barth’s comments. It is a succinct and compelling distillation of Reformed theology. Even more importantly, it gives the reader a feel for the underlying motivations and drives of Reformed theology. You get a sense for what fires Calvin up, not just for how the system fits together. More and more I am convinced that Reformed theology at its core is more about heart motivations than head formulations, more a passionate engagement with the sovereignty and freedom of God than a set of abstract doctrines.

But *then*, you get Barth’s comments on Calvin. And here is a fascinating window into some of the central conflicts within the Reformed tradition. At several key points, Barth departs from Calvin, and in almost every instance, Barth’s modifications of Calvin’s theology seem to me to be welcome improvements. For example, Barth criticizes Calvin for not affirming the goodness of created matter and the body strongly enough, and he is also bothered that Calvin reads hell and eternal judgement back into the creed, when it is not strictly there. (Thank you, Barth.) Equally interesting are passages where Barth agrees with Calvin but subtly (or not so subtly) transposes Calvin’s thinking into a distinctly twentieth century key. The way that Barth translates Reformed doctrine to address modern questions compels me to ask how it could be retranslated to address 21st century questions.

AND, if you’ve never read Barth, this book is a great introduction to his theology. A ton of his major themes find their way into the book. If you are not interested in chewing through the Church Dogmatics, but you are curious about his theology, this is a great summary.

I’ll admit, there are a few points where Barth does his Barth thing and takes flight with soaring, beautiful, outrageous claims that have no grounding in scripture. But he understood that theology always has an aesthetic component, that truth has not only solidity but also intentional, dancing motion. (His passage on Christ as a bird in flight is one of the best paragraphs of theology I have read anywhere.)

I used this book as a conversation partner during a sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed, and it was wonderful. Even as a book charting the genealogical progression of one trajectory of Reformed theology, it is very informative. Highly recommended.

Sermon Introductions and Badly Stained Tablecloths

This blog post is a response to an informal poll on Facebook in which I asked:

Hey Reformed friends, I’ve wondered for a long time about the first part of a sermon. Which of these two do you prefer, and why?

Option A:
1. introduction/story
2. scripture
3. exegesis

Option B:
1. scripture
2. introduction/story
3. exegesis

The responses were great. On the whole, the majority opted for option B or something similar. Here is my response to the poll:

Thanks everyone for the fantastic conversation about sermon form. You all give me hope that Facebook can be a place for faithful Christian dialogue. I purposely didn’t respond to anyone so as not to tilt the conversation. But now that the responses have slowed down, allow me to push back pretty hard on those who argue for the traditional structure of [scripture > introduction > exegesis] or even more rigorously, [scripture > exegesis].

I totally agree with the theological reasoning for placing scripture first and insisting on the primacy of the word. I do think that starting with scripture should be the norm from which we deviate, not the exception. But I can’t say that starting with an introduction is off-limits. Here’s why:

First, to the charge that starting with an introduction necessarily leads to eisegesis, I tend to think that the line between exegesis and eisegesis is very fuzzy. It is a noble pursuit to try to avoid certain kinds of eisegesis, but it is impossible to eliminate it. It is a function of our human finitude and inherent perspectival apprehension of the world. Better to relentlessly study and name and baptize your perspectives than to pretend that they are not there.

Second, worrying about the temporal primacy of the word in the sermon strikes me as an overworrying. Don’t we believe in the ontological primacy of the Word? Doesn’t that trump our petty squabbles about our experience of a tiny slice of time? Theologically, we can say pretty confidently that the Word precedes us in the creation of the world, and the Word precedes us in the inauguration of the Kingdom of God in the person and work of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the gospels. If we preach these truths regularly, I don’t think we need to freak out about whether or not we start the sermon with the scripture or with an introduction. (Besides, if you start the entire worship service with a votum, you are already starting worship with a curious interweaving of human and divine speech. So calm down. God and we are already, in the power of the Spirit, in this together.)

Thirdly, insisting that we start with scripture assumes a level of Biblical literacy that our congregations simply do not have. When I think about the Reformers (or even the later Puritans) insisting on scripture first, I am reminded that Calvin (and later John Owen) preached every day. In a context with that high level of scriptural knowledge, it makes a lot of sense to not distract your congregation with introductions. Oddly, for all of the Reformation polemics against monasticism, this kind of daily preaching of the word in places like Geneva was actually much closer to a monastic daily spiritual ordering of life than our contemporary American Reformed context. I don’t say this lightly, but times have changed.

And here, metaphorically, is the meat of it: preaching a sermon without an introduction is like serving up the most delicious culinary creation by plopping it directly onto the tablecloth. People need a plate on which to hold the food. If people begin to admire the intricate design on the plate instead of the food itself, then the sermon introduction has gone too far. But it is an act of hospitality, an act of missional engagement, and an act of love for your people to hand them the plate before you hand them the food.

Having said this, I think we can make clear distinctions between more and less faithful sermon introductions. As others have already said, a sermon introduction is helpful to the extent that it provides helpful context to the scripture passage, or asks a key existential question which the text itself will also ask or sharpen or answer. A sermon introduction can be less helpful if its purpose is to emotionally hook (or manipulate) the congregation, or establish the brand of the preacher, or flirt with and warm up the congregation. Put more bluntly: intros that lead into the text are good. Intros that lead too deeply into the interior life of the preacher (or even the congregation) are less helpful.

Sermon form carries invisible theological weight. The form of the sermon subtly shapes the way we see the contours of the life of faith. A sermon which begins with subjectivity (and, most likely in the application phase ends with subjectivity) will shape your congregation to view their spiritual life as the work of God framed within the larger framework of their needs and wants. A sermon which begins and ends with the work of God will form people to see their lives as surrounded by the active grace of God.

This is by no means to eliminate your emotions and guts from preaching. There is totally a place for feelings and subjective experience and your needs and wants in a sermon. It’s just not what should open, define or drive the sermon.

However, for the sake of hospitality, mission, and love, I have to say that in some instances (but not all) an introduction to the sermon can be a very good thing. If I am preaching a narrative, I would prefer to lead with the story of scripture. If I am preaching deep in the middle of Romans, or Hebrews, or Ezekiel, I as the waiter might want to set the table before I serve the chef’s special.

Improvisation and Mistakes

My friend Brendan made a great comment and asked a helpful question about my last post:

I would also add [to improvisation] the role of mistakes. Some of my greatest musical moments began as a mistake about which I was willing to have curiosity and creatively trace its relationship back into the original harmonic structure. Your thoughts on mistakes as they relate to improvisation?

I think Brendan is especially on to something when he says that the task of the artist when dealing with mistakes is to ‘creatively trace [the mistake’s] relationship back into the original.’ Here, the artist becomes a host, welcoming the mistake into fellowship with what has already been created. It is a kind of generosity.

Improvisation is an inherently open-handed posture toward the world. It invites surprise. Seen this way, welcoming and incorporating mistakes is a natural outpouring of the spirit of improvisation. From a harmonic perspective, mistakes are only the notes or colors or words that are farthest away tonally from the center of the work. Part of the task of the artist is to lovingly and thoughtfully welcome these estranged motifs on the margins into the center. Or, even more provocatively, to allow the mistakes to become a new center that now coexists alongside the original center of the work.

Really long nerdy footnote:

I would want to make a distinction between three different kinds of ‘mistakes.’ The first kind of mistake is what we might call a ‘sin’ in the singular. This kind of mistake is a moral wrongdoing committed against someone else. The second kind of mistake is the mistake that is not a ‘sin’ but is still a failure or non-perfect action. These mistakes are a feature of our finite nature as human beings, and in art they are not necessarily something to be avoided; they can even be celebrated. The third kind of mistake is a mistake judged by the internal rules of an art form. So, for example, within Western art music, a tritone could be judged a ‘mistake’ in certain musical contexts. But, as we know, in a different context, this kind of mistake can be re-evaluated to actually be something very good.

The first kind of mistake is moral, the second two are aesthetic. But as soon as I make this distinction, I am compelled to say that it is a false distinction. As much as the modern world has tried to sever them, the moral and the aesthetic are intimately and multivalently linked. I don’t think we can cleanly parse the three kinds of mistakes (And indeed, if you go with Augustine, even the first kind of mistake can take on aesthetic beauty, as in his idea of the “fortunate fall”.) But as serious as the first kind of mistake is, it should not prevent us from wholeheartedly embracing mistakes of the second and third kind, for the joy of artistic exploration.

Improvisation and Spirituality

I played jazz bass for the first time in a while last night. There’s nothing quite like creating new music in real time with two other people. I love those moments when I go off in a different harmonic or rhythmic direction right at the same moment when the drummer (Ben) or the pianist (Larry) breaks loose too, and for a split second something completely unexpected and beautiful happens.

I know that it bothers some people, but this is why I never play a song the same way twice in church. I’m always looking for those unexpected moments when a different harmonization or a different rhythm joins with the congregation in unexpected and beautiful ways. I love improvisation and I think that spirituality can be deeply improvisational.

Anyone who has ever improvised can tell you that it’s not simply “making something up.” It takes hours of practice, hours of discipline before the happy accidents can happen. There are rules and values that the improvisers share among themselves as they enter into improvisation together. Our walk with God is the same way. Hours and hours spent in lonely silence, in prayer or in scripture, can eventually lead to the most beautiful improvisation with God.